Venezuela: Can protests end when 'chucky dolls' face off against a 'dictatorial regime'?

Both the opposition and the Maduro administration say dialogue is the solution, but name-calling threatens to drown out calls for peace in Venezuela.

Fernando Llano/AP
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks at a meeting with a South American delegation of foreign ministers at the Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, March 25, 2014.

A month and a half after antigovernment protests broke out across Venezuela, the conflict is still seething. With at least three more reported killed at demonstrations over the weekend, neither government opponents nor supporters have signaled they're ready to stand down.

In fact, the stakes may be rising. The head of Venezuela's congress said this week that opposition leader and congresswoman Maria Corina Machado had been stripped of her seat and parliamentary immunity and could now be tried for supporting the protests. Roadblocks are being built and maintained, and antigovernment marches swarm the streets in neighborhoods across the nation.

From diplomatic intervention to a third-party negotiator to peace talks, observers say an exit strategy is needed for those involved in the heightening political standoff.

“If the government and opposition can’t reach some sort of truce, the situation will get worse – for both parties,” says Carlos Romero, a political analyst in Venezuela.

So what are Venezuela’s options?

Both sides have insisted on dialogue as the only way to solve the current crisis, which has left at least 34 dead over the course of 41 days. But polarizing language has pocked the calls for peace, enhancing already sky-high levels of distrust between both the government and the opposition.

“Dialogue? Peace? It’s all a trick to buy [President Nicolás] Maduro more time,” says Lucía Anderson, a protester at a rally against the government Saturday. Ms. Anderson, like other opposition demonstrators, sees taking to the streets and pressuring President Maduro as the only way out from the country's troubles – from soaring inflation to shortages of many staple goods and high crime.

The distrust that exists between opposition supporters and the Chavista government dates back more than a decade. In 2002, a coalition of politicians, businessmen, and some members of the military attempted to overthrow then-President Hugo Chávez. When protests first ignited last month, many pointed to the opposition movement as a renewed attempt to remove a democratically elected president from office.

Some say the president, because of his position, should be the one to resolve the present unrest. But Maduro’s National Peace Conference last month took place without the participation of opposition leadership, who claimed the government was looking for a monologue, not a dialogue. A "Truth Commission," created by the National Assembly last week to investigate violence linked to the protests, has also been rejected by the opposition. They say sitting on the committee would show implicit support of alleged acts of government repression.

Rhetoric used to describe opposing sides of the conflict hasn't helped. Maduro has called his adversaries vampires, fascists, terrorists, assassins, and “Chuckys,” the 1990s-era horror-movie icon.

Even government supporters like supermarket supplier Eleazar Carreño say the president’s word choice has exacerbated the crisis. “Maduro is very offensive. That’s not helping at all,” says Mr. Carreño at the Plaza Altamira, the opposition’s stronghold in Caracas, last week. He and other government supporters were there to support the National Guard in clearing the rallying site.

But the opposition is guilty of implementing polarizing language as well, referring to the democratically elected government as a dictatorial and totalitarian regime.

“The excessive use of these labels are preventing a deeper [conversation] and a more profound discussion of the situation,” says Maryclen Stelling, a Venezuelan sociologist and political analyst who heads the Romulo Gallegos Center for Latin American Studies in Caracas.

Looking for a mediator

Both camps have called for a mediator. Pope Francis has expressed his concern, but the government has been reluctant to accept the church as a mediator. The administration argues that in past political crises, including the 2002 coup attempt, members of the church sided with the opposition. A Wikileaks cable from 2005 shows that Merida, Venezuela’s Archbishop Baltazar Porras, an open critic of the government, asked the US government to take a stronger stance against President Chávez. 

Diplomatic intervention hasn't gone over well, either: Maduro cut off ties with Panama after its leader called for a meeting on the crisis at the Washington-based Organization of American States. The president insists that if any multilateral organization gets involved in Venezuela, it should be UNASUR, a bloc of South American nations. UNASUR ambassadors will meet in Caracas this week, a move the opposition's Mr. Capriles doesn't support.

What little pressure has been put on Venezuela up until this point may be helping, however. On Sunday, Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega said her office was looking into 60 cases of possible human rights violations by government troops. 

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated the opposition's position on UNASUR's gathering in Caracas this week.

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